How has the closure of the UK’s Forensic Science Service affected justice and science in this country? Jon Evans examines the evidence

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What almost everyone seems to agree on is that closing the UK Forensic Science Service (FSS) was a bad idea.

‘I’ve not heard a single person say that closing the FSS was a good decision,’ says Ann Priston, president of the Forensic Science Society. ‘On the whole, the closure of the only state-funded forensic provision was, I think, an ill-conceived, ill-thought out and hasty decision.’

‘The arguments for its closure were looked at very superficially and very much in terms of the short-term financial gain, with very little knowledge or understanding of the longer term and the bigger picture for forensic science provision in the UK,’ says John Bond, senior lecturer in forensic sciences at the University of Leicester, UK, and former head of Northamptonshire Police’s forensic unit.

The main justification used by the UK government for closing the FSS was that it was losing money. When the closure was first announced in December 2010, the government claimed the FSS was losing around £2 million a month and would run out of funds by January 2011. The government did not want to see the FSS go into administration, but also stated that there was ‘no justification for the uncertainty and costs of trying to restructure and retain the business’. The only option therefore was to conduct an orderly closure.

Until 2002, the FSS was the only major provider of forensic science services in the UK, conducting analyses of DNA, hair, fibres, firearms, drugs and human bodies as part of criminal investigations. It mainly provided these services for police services across England and Wales, but also worked for various other agencies including the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Revenue & Customs.

Then in 2002, in order to encourage the development of a competitive market for forensic services, the FSS lost its position as ‘preferred supplier’ to police forces, which meant that it had to compete against private companies. To help in this regard, the FSS changed in 2005 from being a government agency to a more independent government-owned company. Nevertheless, the FSS went from having a virtual monopoly on the provision of forensic services to a 60% share of the market. 

Mikael Karlsson/Alamy

Drug-testing kits like this mean police no longer need to send samples away to central laboratories

At the same time, the amount that police forces spent on forensic services was falling. This was due to a combination of shrinking police budgets, encouraging police forces to save money by conducting more forensic work in-house, and falling crime rates. According to government figures, the amount that police forces spent on the external provision of forensic services fell from £190 million in 2005–06 to £138 million in 2010–11. Over the same period, the amount that police forces spent in-house increased from £165?million to £181?million, with a peak of £190?million in 2008–09.

So from 2002, the FSS found itself competing for a falling share of a contracting market. As a result, in 2008 it began a major cost-cutting and restructuring programme, which involved closing sites at Chepstow and Chorley. This restructuring programme was still ongoing when the government announced its intention to close the FSS, meaning that the announcement came as a complete surprise to FSS staff.

Shock to the system

‘It was a total bolt out of the blue,’ remembers Mark Mastaglio, former principal scientist for firearms at the FSS. ‘The FSS had gone through a huge range of restructuring and cuts and looking at how they could make the process more streamlined, more cost effective. So it came as a total shock to everyone at the FSS when the announcement was made by the minister.’

‘It was an utter and complete shock,’ agrees Gill Tully, former head of research at the FSS. ‘Everyone knew that the financial position was poor and everyone was expecting quite a few redundancies, but I don’t think anyone outside the FSS board expected the closure announcement.’

It came as a total shock when the announcement was made by the minister

Mark Mastaglio

Indeed, the announcement came as a shock to almost everyone, including the Forensic Science Society and private forensic providers such as LGC Forensics, as the government had only consulted with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) before making its decision to close the FSS. The lack of consultation about the potential impact of closing the FSS was one of the main criticisms made by the House of Common’s Science and Technology Select Committee in its report on the closure, published in July 2011.

‘We were shocked when conducting this inquiry at how little consideration the government had given to the wider impacts of the FSS closure before making its decision,’ said Andrew Miller MP, chair of the committee, at the time of the report’s publication. Now, a year after the closure, the committee is conducting a follow-up study into the wider impacts.

The most important of these wider impacts was the question of who would take over the forensic work formerly conducted by the FSS. The government had simply assumed that private forensic providers would be able to do this, even though the workload was substantial. In 2010, the FSS still provided the majority of forensic services in the UK, conducting around 120,000 cases a year and employing around 1300 scientists. 

In actual fact, according to Priston, private providers have not taken on all the workload of the FSS, simply because they do not offer the same range of analytical tests. ‘They haven’t mopped it up,’ she says. ‘They’ve dropped a lot of areas of work that used to be done in favour of the quick fix, which is of course DNA. There are certainly areas that are not done to the extent that they used to be.’ Understandably, it is the less profitable forensic areas, such as the analysis of trace evidence, that have tended to fall by the wayside. 

Priston admits that the fact certain forensic tests are no longer being done may not be having a detrimental effect on criminal investigations, but no one really knows. ‘I tend to think personally that there are areas of work which should be done and aren’t being done, but I’ve no evidence to say that it makes any difference at all,’ she says.

Lost expertise

In addition to private forensic providers, police forces are taking on some of the former workload of the FSS. Police forces have always carried out certain forensic tests themselves, such as fingerprint analysis, but they are increasingly carrying out more complex and technical tests. In part, this being driven by the development of new forensic devices; for instance, drug-testing kits now allow police to test immediately whether a suspect has taken drugs rather than having to send a sample away to a laboratory.

Thomas Kienzle/AP/Press Association Images

Police forces have always done some forensic work internally, but the closure of the FSS means they have taken on more

In the wake of the closure of the FSS, however, some forces have set up their own state-of-the-art forensic laboratories. The Metropolitan Police has taken over a former FSS laboratory in Lambeth, while West Yorkshire Police opened a £21m Regional Police Forensic and Scientific Support Building in April 2012.

Concerns have been raised, including by the Science and Technology Select Committee, that the forensic tests carried out by police forces may not as rigorous as those conducted by the FSS or private companies. Especially as some police forensic units have not obtained the quality accreditation, known as ISO?17025, that private providers are required to have before they can conduct forensic work for the police. To allay these concerns, the Forensic Science Regulator, set up to regulate the quality of forensic science services in the UK, has stated that all police forces conducting forensic studies should achieve this accreditation by 2016 and most are now working towards it.

Even if the tests are carried out correctly, though, they still need to be interpreted properly. ‘The real power of forensic science comes in how you interpret those tests and put them into the context of the case,’ says Mastaglio. And this kind of interpretation requires just the kind of expertise that has been lost with the closure of the FSS. 

‘A lot of very experienced people are not practising any more,’ says Priston. Of the 1300 scientists formerly employed by the FSS, some have been taken on by private forensic providers such as LGC Forensics and Key Forensic Services, some have joined police forensic laboratories, some have gone on to teach at universities and some have set up their own forensic companies and consultancies. 

But the vast majority, over 80% according to Mastaglio, have simply left the forensic sector. ‘The knowledge base has withered, in that the majority of the forensic scientists who were employed by the FSS are no longer in the profession.’ he says. ‘A lot have retired or gone on to do other things.’

In some cases, these highly experienced scientists are being replaced by new graduates. ‘It’s cheaper to take on a youngster and retrain than to take on somebody very experienced,’ says Priston. But the closure of the FSS and the continued contraction of the external forensic services market, which the government predicts will fall to £110?million by 2015, means that forensic jobs are increasingly hard to come by. Still, students are continuing to fill the forensic courses being offered by universities, in many cases enticed by the portrayal of forensic science in films and on television, termed the ‘CSI effect’. The end result, says Priston, is an increasing glut of new forensic science graduates who are struggling to find work.

The closure of the FSS has also transformed the make-up of the whole forensic science sector. Whereas the FSS used to dominate the sector, even as its share of the market fell, now the sector is made up of a large number of smaller companies, with LGC Forensics the largest single provider. This situation has been complicated by former FSS employees setting up their own businesses. Together with nine of their former colleagues, Mastaglio and Tully set up Principal Forensic Services in 2012, while Mastaglio also co-founded the Forensic Firearms Consultancy.

This preponderance of small companies is encouraging the fragmentation of forensic work, in which the police send evidence from the same case to different providers for different tests. This is done both for cost reasons and because smaller providers tend to have specific areas of expertise, but there are inherent dangers in this approach.

‘I think there’s potential for evidence to be lost,’ warns Preston. ‘Because if an exhibit goes to one provider and it’s examined for one thing and then it moves on to somewhere else and the new examiner doesn’t know what’s gone on before or hasn’t got an overview of the whole situation, then I think things can be missed.’

Reduced research

Crady von Pawlak/Corbis

The FSS developed the UK’s national DNA database, but in their absence who will perform fundamental research?

Research into new forensic techniques has also suffered from the closure of the FSS, which spent £3–5 million a year on research. Research conducted by the FSS was instrumental in setting up the world’s first national DNA database, while just before its closure the FSS was developing new ways to extract information from digital devices, prevent sample contamination and rapidly capture DNA. It was also involved in applying new analytical technology, such as DART (direct analysis in real time) mass spectrometry, to forensic work.

The government asserted that private providers would take on much of this research. But only the largest private providers have the resources to conduct research and even then it is focused on research that provides them with a competitive advantage, rather the on the kind of fundamental research conducted at the FSS. ‘Because they’re commercial companies, they really can’t devote the time and the money to blue-skies thinking, because it doesn’t bring in the returns,’ says Priston. What is more, the contraction of the forensic market is now limiting how much private providers can spend on research.

Universities are not taking up the slack, as forensic research is poorly funded in the UK. ‘The academic community is very vocal in saying that it’s extremely difficult to get funding for applied science like forensic science,’ says Tully. Acknowledging this, the Home Office published a report on forensic research in 2011, which called on the research councils to establish forensic science as a strategic research priority and on the Technology Strategy Board  to establish a forensic science special interest group involving the police, academics and private providers.

As a consequence, Bond thinks that the situation is just starting to improve. ‘The government has now somewhat belatedly recognised that there is a vacuum that needs to be filled,’ he says. ‘I’m now more reassured that the government are trying to put plans in place to bring together all the necessary parties to make sure that forensic science research does continue.’

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There are concerns that the fragmentation of services could result in evidence being lost

What no one yet knows is whether the fall-out from the closure of the FSS, in terms of tests being dropped, expertise being lost, studies being fragmented and research being curtailed, will make mistakes in forensic analysis more likely, leading to potential miscarriages of justice. One such mistake occurred in 2011 when DNA contamination at an LGC Forensics laboratory in Teddington resulted in an innocent man being held for five months on a charge of rape, although this does appear to have been an isolated event.

It all comes down to whether justice is best served by conducting forensic science within a competitive market. The government certainly thinks so, but many in the forensic science community are not so sure. ‘Do you want a society where everything’s for sale and everybody’s a customer, or do you actually value services which are there for society’s benefit and should be funded through general taxation?’ says Mastaglio. ‘That’s the heart of the issue.’

Jon Evans is a science writer based in Bosham, UK